I will preface this by saying that this is written in the style of a participant observation. Though it’s not the most invigorating writing style, the content has value. I believe in practicing respect and tolerance for all cultures while searching for understanding, meaning and a connection. Leave your thoughts at the end. I am very curious to hear other points of view.
Gender Sensitization Orientation (Participant Observation)
31 December 2015 2:19 PM- 4:50 PM
-Approximately 30 couples comprised of married men and women and unmarried boys and girls * (description given to me by the organizations employees)
-Event held by Adecom, local NGO that works in ‘women’s rights’ ‘gender equality’ and ‘gender sensitization’ predominantly amongst rural Dalit populations in the Tamil Nadu region
-The Dalit are the suppressed “untouchable” communities in India’s ‘former’ caste system that are still systematically discriminated against.
-The interaction took place in the Tamil language with interspersed comments in variant local languages. One of the male employees served as my translator.
Walking into a gathering of formally dressed young couples with the males wearing button down shirts, dress pants and sandals and the women wearing saris I get curious stares as I walk past them and into the office to meet with my boss. She is sitting at the table between two people I have not met before. I am introduced to a man who I am told is a teacher of gender sensitization, he stands and informs me he has been recognized by the president of India for his work, I politely smile and shake his hand. The woman on the other side I am told is an activist like Lalida, my boss, she simply smiles at me and shakes my hand across the table.
As I walk back outside the chairs are being put back in order and everyone is getting settled mostly male and female partners together intermingled. The man that I was introduced to before sits in front of the gathering and speaks to them in Tamil he asks a question and two males respond a couple minutes later a woman responds, a dialogue starts and everyone laughs. All seem to be avidly paying attention.
My translator tells me he is giving them an example of a 17 year old boy with a 13 year old girl who fell in love and had relations and now the girl is pregnant. He is asking the couples what their view is on the incident. I am told here in India majority is at 18 years of age. According to the marriage act in India a male should be 21 and a female at least 18. The couples are asking what the circumstances are surrounding the situation. According to the Marriage Act the male should be sent to a juvenile home. The “important man” asks the couples what should be done about the girl. He suggests she be sent to school. He tells them the boy will be sent to the juvenile home for 2-3 years and then he will be released and he will be fine. The female will be affected more. One male distractedly looks around.
In another case a school going girl child was pregnant, she was taking an exam, she leaves during the exam births her child, throws it out the window and returns to finish the exam.
He asks how the men will take better care of their wives. They respond we will take better care of them, we will help with the dishes. He asks the women what they expect from their husbands? The females choose not to respond. One of them says she will respond later.
…everyone claps, jokes are being told, people laugh.. occasionally someone glances my way both the males and the females seem curious about my presence.
He asks how the couples got married, one couple responds they fell in love and with the consent of their family they got married. Everyone claps…
He asks the males what are you doing in favor of your wives? The women respond. He asks if there are any males willing to come forward and respond. No one is willing…Lalida speaks..one husband responds “I am doing all the household chores.”
One of the girls states she observed her fathers behavior with her mother and she understood she should be very tolerating in her family. Everyone laughs. She continues stating she is wondering if her husband will be like she is, if he will be tolerating. Her future husband responds he will be tolerating and he will help her. She states when she is having a child she will not show discrimination in a boy or girl.
Another woman speaks up and states that when she is not feeling well her husband will do all the household activities and cook for her.
A man speaks up telling the crowd he is a follower of Ambedkar, my translator explains Ambedkar is an Indian philosopher, he says Ambedkar believes there should be no discrimination between a boy or a girl and we should not hurt our ladies. He states he is doing the same.
A female stands next to the “important man,” he explains she is a worker at Adecom and he asks her to explain how her family is going on, how she fairs in her family and how her husband is helping her? She explains that after coming to Adecom she learned that women have rights, her husband had been beating her but after learning he acts better. Everyone claps. Now he is helping her by cooking and washing the clothes. Everyone claps again. She tells everyone her mother-in-law had also hurt her many times. Women interact with her, ask questions, and make comments. There is some laughing. She says many problems arise from her mother-in-law. A male employee films her speech. Everyone claps. When she is done she sits.
Another female employee stands to speak. She tells about the behavior of her mother-in-law, telling them that she will support her own daughter but not her daughter-in-law. She says her husband is so cooperative with her he helps her in all ways. She addresses the couples and tells them that the husbands should help their wives. Most females clap. Some males clap.
Lalida speaks…a female responds…she is telling it is better when her husband is taking decisions he should tell his wife, ask her opinion… theres clapping
My translator tells me he also does not understand all the words he speaks Malayalam he is from Kerala in the south of India. He tells me I can look on a map to find it. He notes I also write down our interaction, I respond its part of what is going on.
The ‘important man’ speaks again, he is telling them our aim is the equality of women with men, for that we assemble here, for that we are speaking. He is telling them to join us in that goal. He is telling them if there is no equality ‘normal society’ will not join.
A male speaks, my translator tells me he is speaking in a fully colloquial language and he does not understand. He listens quietly for a while then tells me the man is telling them we should not go for abortion of girl child, in family the male should help the ladies in household chores, there should be no discrimination between boy or girl.
The ‘important man’ gives another example telling them that at the time of marriage it is customary for the girls mother and father to give her husband a car, it is registered in the husbands name. He is telling them the money is from the brides family and the car should be registered also in the girls name. He continues stating that normally when naming the child we give the initial of the fathers name so there also the mother does not have a role, he tells them that when naming the child they can put the father and the mothers name.
Some suggestions for girls/ladies..
Ladies should respect their husbands
They ask for someone to read the women’s suggestions formulated by the group earlier in the day in a workshop that they did.
A woman stands off to the side and reads off a piece of paper
-When a decision is taken in the family, women should be involved also
-Ladies should not kill the girl child at the time of birth or before birth. They should look after girl child properly
-By telling all this I am not against the husband, with the husband I will fight for the empowerment of women and I will work for that..
^My translator asks what I am studying?
-I respond political science and international affairs
^He asks what I will do with that?
-I respond I will work for an international NGO with human rights or maybe emergency humanitarian response.
^He states that if I am doing international human rights every country has its own rules and regulations.
-I tell him that why I am here in India, to observe and learn how and why people are different.
^He asks me where I am from?
-I tell him I am from the United States
^He tells me everything must better in the United States, that we can do everything just with our phones, as he holds up his own.
-I laugh and tell him it is not necessarily better just different and I agree with him that we can do almost anything with our phones
^He asks where I am studying?
^Where my parents are?
^How long my program is?
^Will I go back to the US when I am done?
-I respond that I am studying in France but my parents are back in the United States. My program will last a little over a year in a half and whether or not I go back to the US will depend on if I can get a job somewhere else or not.
^He silently contemplates this…
^He tells me he has family in the US in Florida and New York
Another male worker comes and sits by him and they speak to each other in Tamil.
^He then turns to me asks me what the official language of the US is?
-I tell him there is no official language, people can speak whatever language they want but English is the common language and most people speak English
^He asks me if I like India
-I tell him I do but it is very different from what I am use to
^He tells me that if I stay in India for a year I will get use to it
Feedback from the couples;
After coming here they also start to think about the empowerment of women and how they can favor their wives.
There is a couple that has had a “law marriage,” Lalida is asking them directly to provide their feedback. They choose not to respond.
I ask what “law marriage’ means and my translator explains Law Marriage means the couple chose to marry by law without their parents opinion or approval. They took their own decision he says. He then tells me an Arranged Marriage means the parents chose and approved.
^He asks me if I know of arranged marriages
-I tell him I do but that it is not something that I practice
^He asks me if I am married?
-I respond I am not
^He asks when I will marry?
-I tell him I don’t know, maybe some day in the future but not any time soon and it is not something that I am actively searching for
^He asks me my age?
-I respond I am 27
He reads my notes and laughs
^He tells me that what he asks me is personal and I do not need to write it down
-I tell him its part of my assignment and is not for anyone to read
Lalida is telling the couples she is a follower of Ambedkar, she is motivating them.
I am conscious of how I am sitting and that the bottoms of my feet may be showing, I shift positions. My legs are starting to fall asleep.
My translator is looking over my shoulder reading what I am writing so I get a bit self-conscious and stop writing.
The conversation continues for a moment, the ‘important man’ speaks the couples come to the front individually and gifts are given to all the couples and a female employee thanks them for coming. Everyone stands and starts saying their goodbyes. They wish everyone a Happy New Year and a Happy Pongal (harvest festival in Tamil Nadu) They stand in groups and take pictures slowly they start to leave 2-3 per motorcycle.
After they are all gone the Adecom employees gather around in a circle, my translator joins them. They speak in Tamil with interspersed English words. They seem to be discussing how the day went, giving feedback or maybe what they’ve learned from the session. The ‘important male’ seems to be the lead speaker at one point one of the female employees seems to be talking to him and his phone rings while she is speaking, he answers his phone and she falls silent quietly waiting for him to finish his conversation. He finishes talking on the phone and addresses the male sitting next to the female who had been previously speaking. Another female speaks and the ‘important man’ interrupts her, she continues to speak and one female claps when she is done. Nandi, a female employee, begins to speak. I understand the words ‘gender sensitivity’ and ‘gender equality’ spoken several times along with the word “couples”. The ‘important man” speaks I understand “communication training” “the invitation” “in the reading” “background material” “reading material” “it’s a learning” “communication activity” Lalida’s husband responds and a discussion ensues, it sound like they’re arguing I hear the words “budget constraint” there is finger pointing and speakinf with hands a little aggressively. The ‘important man’ continues to speak with his hand but he smiles as he speaks. I notice he has a wedding ring. He gets up and everyone claps, he grabs bags with the gifts he was given earlier, speaks to Lalida’s husband and then he leaves. A female follows him out, she sits side saddle on the back of his bike. Lalida speaks, 2 other male employees speak (no rings), another male employee speaks, he has a wedding ring, he speaks firmly. Lalida’s husband’s phone rings and he answers. Lalida begins speaking “new place for learning,” a female speaks and Lalida seems to mouth a silent “thank you.” They seem to continue to give their observations the conversation seems to get more serious/intense. Nandi begins to speak very passionately and ends up excusing herself and leaves visibly upset. My translator says a few words and then Lalida begins to speak more quietly. Nandi returns and joins the circle..
I found the interaction to be incredibly interesting. It is clear to see the very delineated gender roles in the society I was observing. From the moment I walked into the gathering and the ‘self-important male’ dominated the introductions and later the conversation I began to question teaching gender equality and gender sensitization in an environment that is more self aware but still very much male dominated. I wondered if the use of a prominent male speaker was intentional and if the organization felt it was easier to get their message across through him because he would be better received and the couples would be more receptive to his words. I found correlations with previous classes and studies, where I learned that in societies with systematic and internalized suppression of women, the older women will perpetuate the cycle of oppression even when the younger males seems more open to equality within the roles. It is also clear that the discrimination against women is deeply rooted and unconscious to the level that unless they are being directly confronted with examples of what should be done, when and why the gender roles are not even questioned. I quickly realized through my translator’s questions that neither he nor any of the males there would know what to do with a female such as myself; opinionated, independent, stubborn and very strong willed, very rarely submissive and not at all interested in marriage or a male protector/caretaker. I question whether I would be that person if I had been born here or in a different environment. I also found interesting the societal relationship to marriage and the fact that through their own description a woman and a man are married while those who are unmarried are described as girls and boys. I caught myself thinking that they just needed time to be educated and to advance into a more evolved society where the concept of gender equality did not need to be preceded with concepts of what a male should do and what a female should do. As if a man doing the dishes suddenly makes everything equal. I began to think of them as children that needed to be taught better so they could do better. This brought about mixed emotions on my belief that different does not necessarily mean one view is better or one view is wrong. While I did not feel I actively passed judgment the difficulty of silencing ones own biases was very apparent. I thought back to my paper on cultural relativity in human rights and began to question the feasibility of applying concepts of universal human rights to societies that cannot even begin to understand the concepts embodied within the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In their brochure they refer to the ‘Dalit’ as the backward class, I cringed at the term but momentarily saw a parallel in the way their culture functions to suppress women. I reprimand myself for passing judgement. If a 16 year old girl with a child and a loving and caring husband that values her and treats her as his equal is happy and feels she has a purpose and is contributing to not only her family but her community, who am I to say that she must do otherwise? Should her perception of the world change to include mine simply because I perceive that there is something lacking? Should her world be morphed into something that is unrecognizable to her and potentially makes her miserable so that I can have the satisfaction of saying that women are equal to men and that we have succeeded in ensuring every child has a basic education and everyone’s human rights are being respected? I think on the fact that I must filter the information I am receiving through broken English and a translator who does not fully understand and who is influenced by his own biases, his view of me as an outsider that may or may not judge his culture and his obvious discomfort with me writing down everything he said. I reflect on the parts of the conversation that where not translated to me and am aware that my level of understanding through gestures, tone and expressions may have been simply perceived understanding from interjecting my own views and making assumptions from my own expectations. I believe there are things that translate across cultures… feelings… emotions… basic needs. I am not sure if I should look at the world as evolving and as some peoples more evolved than others or as if there is some end game to which we are all evolving. I feel as if that train of thought presupposes there is a “right way” to be, or a single idea of “right” towards which we should all strive which further complicates my feelings towards a universal human rights declaration. I question everything and feel that I find no answers but only more questions…
Very interesting, Lina. Here are a few thoughts inspired by your post. They are less about your specific study than on what I personally find so precious about the AUP program in India.
We all tend to start with answers, which might be temporarily reassuring, but is always a problematic way to start. We carry and project onto the world around us a number of values, social customs, principles and beliefs. And then, confronted with a different, extraordinarily complex, shifting, both petrified and evolving reality, the whole edifice we carry in our heads begins to shake and soon cracks appear like so many gaping questions. Nothing wrong with finding only few answers to hold on to in this cultural turmoil, at least for a while. Nothing wrong either with having the impression of finding only more questions, at least for a while.
As one of the founders of the AUP program in India (with Tanya Elder, in 2008) and as someone who has spent relatively long, repeated and mostly active periods in Auroville and the region around it, particularly concerned with social issues and social creativity, or what could be called experiments in concrete utopia, I have often felt lost. Except that I, only somewhat jokingly, claim that the right to get lost should be considered one of the fundamental Human Rights! And then, the questions which abound suddenly become anchored in a smile, a twinkle in the eye, a handshake, a tap on the shoulder, a few words awkwardly exchanged in either known or unknown languages (both work). And then the questions, which keep coming have a face and a voice. And the questions are not only multiplied, but enriched and refined. There are still few clear cut answers to hang onto, but when the questions start getting better, you know you’re on the right track. And if, during your stay in Tamil Nadu, South India, you were also able to somehow, in whatever modest way, actually give a hand, you will certainly have not wasted your time. There’s always something infinitely precious to be learned from helping others help themselves.
Laurent Sauerwein, currently retired in Berlin